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BY JACK BALLARD
It is called “Montana’s Trailhead,” an honor in a state known for adventure around every corner. Billings, Montana, the site of OWAA’s 2016 conference, is situated in a region flush with outdoor opportunities. You’ll find mountains to climb, fish to catch and don’t forget to plan time to visit Yellowstone National Park to celebrate the National Park Service’s Centennial at the country’s first national park.
You aren’t going to want to miss joining OWAA July 16-18, 2016, in a city ripe with adventure and rich in history.
Spawned by the Northern Pacific Railroad’s push into Montana, Billings is named for Frederick Billings, a railroad man who realized the need for a town on the coming rail line. H. W. Rowley, one of the railroad’s civil engineers, journeyed by stage to assess locations along the Yellowstone River bottom in February 1882. In March, papers were filed in Minnesota for the newly platted community and the boom began.
Billings’ historic moniker, “The Magic City” originated not from a local illusionist or the enchanting character of the community. To Montana residents and visitors from other parts of the country, Billings was “magic” because it seemed to spring up overnight. One local history asserts that within weeks of being offered for sale in the summer of 1882, over 5,000 lots had been sold in the fledgling city which soon consisted of an odd assortment of tents and tacked together dwellings of uncertain design.
Currently, the Billings area is home to some 100,000 residents, claims the honor of the Treasure State’s largest city and has acquired a new title, “Montana’s Trailhead.” Like many trailheads in the nearby Absaroka Mountains, the path from Billings leads to a plethora of outdoor adventures and cultural attractions.
The city perches adjacent to the Yellowstone River, the longest free flowing, undammed stream in the United States.
Sandstone cliffs form natural barriers north and south of town, themselves a fascinating source of history and recreation. “Sacrifice Cliff,” located on the south side of the river is named for two warriors of the Crow Indian tribe who blindfolded their horses and galloped over the escarpment in a sacrificial act intended to halt a smallpox epidemic. The tawny buttresses on the north side of the city are locally known as “The Rims” and contain one of Billings’ outstanding recreational attractions.
“Mountain biking on the Rims is about as good as you’ll find anywhere,” said Jeff Peterson, owner of Global Travel Alliance, who has powered fat tires in many locations across the country. Early morning riders (or runners) spot various creatures along the trail such as mule deer, great-horned owls and other species of wildlife. The mountain biking path boasts superb views of the city and the Beartooth and Pryor Mountains. Though flat in many places the trail dips and curves through coulees flush with stately ponderosa pines and sandstone boulders, offering adventure to novice and advanced riders alike.
The past two decades have seen a burgeoning craft beer culture exploding across Montana. Billings is no exception. After the sun sets on a day of inspiring activity, visitors and residents have no less than seven local breweries from which to choose; six of these are located in the downtown area within walking distance of each other. “The Garage,” home of Yellowstone Valley Brewing Company hosts live music every Saturday evening and intermittently on Wednesdays.
Water is lifeblood to the semi-arid plains of Montana. The early days of Billings found developers scrambling to provide water to the growing community until a canal diverted water from miles upstream on the Yellowstone River to the fledgling city. Beyond its significance as a source of water for municipalities and agriculture, the Yellowstone River is a fascinating study in history and ecology. Dubbed the “La Roche Jaune” by early French trappers, their moniker is translated “the river of yellow rock” or “yellow stone” from whence the stream gets its English name. The Yellowstone flows unfettered for 678 miles before joining the Missouri River, just inside North Dakota. Captain William Clark journeyed down the Yellowstone on his return from the Pacific. Pompey’s Pillar, a National Monument, is located just 28 miles east of Billings. The captain’s carved initials remain on a sandstone formation near the river and represent some of the limited physical evidence of the epic Lewis and Clark Expedition. Along with its historic attraction, Pompey’s Pillar is a hit with birders who find numerous species endemic to prairie riparian areas within the monument.
Billings is located at a transition area along the Yellowstone, a stretch of river of some 30 miles where the river transitions from a cold-water to a warm-water stream. Anglers find trout in the Billings area, but they may encounter smallmouth bass as well. In recent years warm-water species of fish have been making their way further up the river. Evidence of a warming climate? Perhaps. What impact might they have on trout up-river? Questions like these give biologists issues to study on a free-flowing river and journalists fodder for articles.
Within an hour’s drive from Billings there are outstanding trout streams to explore, mountains to climb and battlefields to visit. Given its own recreational appeal and its location as a gateway to such classics as Yellowstone National Park, the AbsarokaBeartooth Wilderness, the Custer Battlefield and the Bighorn River, “Montana’s Trailhead” is the city’s perfect nickname. ♦
– Jack Ballard is a freelance author and photographer with credits in more than 25 regional and national magazines. Ballard has lived in the Billings, Montana, area for more than 30 years and is OWAA’s Local Conference Chair for the 2016 conference.